Magic Systems for Non-Magicians

I’ve been thinking about magic systems lately. To be more accurate, author Brandon Sanderson has spent a lot of time thinking about magic systems and lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply his theories to other types of writing.

Sanderson’s Laws are popular guides to writing in the fantasy genre. Sanderson distinguishes between hard magic systems and soft magic systems, with most applications of fictional magic falling somewhere in between. On the harder side of the spectrum, magic has strict rules that can’t be broken. On the softer side, anything goes and new rules seem to be created on the fly.

Sanderson’s Laws aren’t about those laws of magic, but offer guidance to authors on how to incorporate systems of magic into their storytelling.

Among the examples Sanderson uses to apply his rules are the fantasy systems in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and…superheroes. In fact, he writes an extensive analysis of the laws of a universe that would allow Superman to exist.

We don’t often think about superhero worlds as fantasy, as they are usually grounded in our own reality, but they offer settings in which potions, spells, and monsters are replaced by mutation, lab accidents, and aliens. These worlds offer impossible events that operate within a system that can be described in terms of magic.

Currently, I’m working on a story inspired by Greek mythology and set in a Bronze Age society where the gods of Olympus are active and real. In this world, the magic system is made of gods. It operates just like any other fantasy work except that the magic system is sentient and made up of interlocking parts with clashing personalities beyond human control.

In Greek mythology, the rules of magic are defined by the personalities of the gods. The more strictly delineated the gods are, and the less likely the gods are to deviate from their standard behaviors, the more the system moves toward the harder side of Sanderson’s soft-magic to hard-magic spectrum.

The body of Greek mythology as a whole is a fairly soft magic system. The gods are fickle, unpredictable, inconsistent over multiple works, and are often constrained by the Fates. In such a system, one god or another can show up at any time to resolve any conflict, becoming a literal deus ex machina. For example, Athena showing up at the end of Homer’s Odyssey to end the cycle of vendetta between Odysseus and the families of all the people he killed.

The challenge within a specific work of mythic fantasy is to harden the magic system by providing more specific motivations and realms for each god, and better defining the extent to which the gods are willing or able to intervene in mortal affairs. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus doesn’t just refrain from saving the life of Sarpedon. He defines a rule for all of the other gods to follow regarding the deaths of their own favored mortals.

I’m using this in my story by giving gods predictable personalities and sets of rules in which they operate. This makes their interventions in the mortal world seem more natural to the story, reducing the problem of deus ex machina plotting.

If Sanderson’s Laws of magic can by applies to superheroes and mythology, where else might they be applied outside the traditional realms of fantasy?

The speculative technology in a work of science fiction could be viewed, not just as an extension of current technology, but as a system in itself with elements that operate by a set of predictable laws. That way, a new program, process, or device will have a more natural introduction and will more naturally fit into the setting.

The landscape in a speculative political thriller can be viewed as a system under which the outcomes can be explained.

Or in a spy thriller, where the hero is reliant upon a set of gadgets to survive. As much as I enjoy the James Bond franchise, it always annoyed me that Q would gear Bond up before every mission with exactly the gadgets he would need in specific situations that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen by the scope of the assignment. By thinking of spy gadgets generally as a kind of magic system, they could be employed more realistically.

Spy writers, mythologists, and the writers of political thrillers may not dip into the critical analysis of works in the fantasy genre, but they should. This is just one example of how authors who write in one genre can benefit by examining the rules that seem, on the surface, to apply only to a different genre. No matter the genre, we’re all just telling stories.

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Greg R. Fishbone
Greg R. Fishbone is Author-in-Residence at Mythoversal, a project dedicated to restoring inclusion, diversity, and equity to classical texts. His upcoming middle-grade serial, Becoming Hercules, will be released through the Kindle Vella platform. Greg lives in New England with his wife, two young readers, and a pair of stubbornly illiterate cats.

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